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Designing Digital Storytelling Programs

By Lorna Boschman and Venay Felton

This article was originally published on Digital Stories Canada at https://digitalstories.ca/designing-digital-storytelling-programs/ on July 9, 2020. Republished here with permission.

During our initial research interviews, mentors and facilitators shared what they’d learned about Community Digital Storytelling (CDS), based on their years of experience. All of the program designs discussed here share characteristics with the first model we looked at: Working with Communities as a Filmmaker and Mentor. In the original workshop design, an organization (National Film Board of Canada, gallery gachet, Artsbridge, Give Peace a Chance etc.) contracts a filmmaker to work with a specific community to co-create short video projects. 

The filmmakers in this model contribute to community storytellers’ aesthetic and technical development, and design at least part of the curriculum. The filmmaker’s involvement comes after the initial work of fundraising is complete. In the first model, CDS practitioners are not designers of the overall program. They do not contribute to fundraising or report to funders about the program. In the initial model, the filmmaker is almost always travelling to the community to provide services. The exception is the Artsbridge model, where mentors as well as youth from Israel, Palestine and North America travelled to the program site to engage in their 10 week program.

Our World Language

How has the workshop design changed over time?

Our World Language, established in 2006 by NFB producers Svend-Erik Eriksen and Banchi Hanuse, originally had a mandate to visit remote Indigenous communities in BC and Yukon multiple times and help youth and elders tell their own stories in their own First Language. The team of facilitator and mentors travelled to remote (mostly northern) Indigenous communities, usually working through secondary school programs. 

In the early days, Our World Language brought along any equipment required for the workshop. Community schools or libraries did not have computers or monitors suitable for editing. Bringing in equipment shifted the workshop design so that storytellers could edit simultaneously instead of taking turns on a limited number of computer stations. The design of these workshops was customized for each learner, so they could follow their own creative process and tell their own story. 

The Our World Language team has learned that every workshop is different, depending on the needs and contributions of the participants. Day One will not look the same for every group. Participants do not follow a preset schedule. Sometimes participants jump right in and know what they want to say. Sometimes ideas come slower as participants struggle to articulate their stories; then in the last three days, the level of production and editing activity is intense. Originally the digital storytelling workshop may have followed a set routine, but over time, the structure has become more flexible, customized to the needs of the individual community storytellers. 

Our World brings HD cameras with them for novice filmmakers to shoot with (currently Canon Vixias and Canon Rebels which are very durable but there is always hope to acquire new cameras). They use Final Cut Pro 10 as it involves only the initial purchase cost, not a monthly fee like Adobe’s Premiere Pro. Final Cut Pro resembles iMovie, which many youth are already using. 

Our World originally used Mac Minis with actual monitors but they were cumbersome to travel with. Currently they edit with laptops. In previous iterations of their workshop, Indigenous digital artist Lisa Jackson visited the community in advance for two to three days to develop their stories, ahead of the other mentors’ arrival for an 8-10 day Intensive workshop.

“Each person walking down the street has this rich life of experiences. Some bad, some good, but they probably have stories to tell. If you think about it, in a culture, storytelling is one of the key things that knits us all together. If we can share our stories, that’s an important thing. And there’s no reason why so-called ordinary people shouldn’t be able to tell their stories, and have them heard. It shouldn’t always be just professionals.”

Lisa g. Nielsen, facilitator, Our World Language

Earlier workshop processes required the audio to be locked (in the final position) before picture editing could begin. This was called the SPINE of the story. Also of note, sometimes people did not want to show their face or they didn’t have photos for their story. The challenge is overcome through creative storytelling strategies. 

In a recent workshop, Lisa g. Nielsen worked with Brooke Rice on ó:nen í:ke’s. Her film is an experimental rumination on breaking free from colonialist institutional learning and embracing cultural ways of knowing. A stunning and ultimately calming film.

How do facilitators and mentors interact in the program design?

Our World Language’s program is designed so that the facilitator and mentors travel to a location to work with folks who tell their own individual community digital stories. Local facilitators or mentors are hired to work with the group, generally centred around a local school. When possible, the facilitator tries to open the program to all ages so that elders and other folks who are out of school can participate. As mentors or allies to people who want to tell a story without learning the technology, Our World can offer a range of options within the program design, including the simplest way to record the story – audio interview with photos. 

While learning the technical aspects of creating the story are emphasized with youth, they are not as important for older people who may want to just tell their story. Mentors or facilitators can meet with youth, adults and elders in their homes and share their photo albums together as part of the process of co-creating the story. Audio is the heart of a story and the advantage of digital storytelling is being able to match voice-overs with photos. 

 “If participants need to rest or reflect before taking action, we can respect that.”

Lisa g. Nielsen

In the initial days of the workshop, it may be more important to learn what the storyteller is thinking than to begin production. Some storytellers begin to share what they see in their mind, rather than starting to shoot with the camera. On the other hand, others may start shooting even when their story is still developing. As editing begins, the missing elements become clearer. Storytellers learn to take charge of their own production.

The Our World team may come into the workshop with equipment, but the storyteller can choose to use their own equipment (cameras, laptops and cell phones) to tell the story, practicing on their own tools. If a facilitator knows the interests of those who will attend a future workshop, they will construct the team to accommodate these interests, for instance bringing in an animator, analog filmmaker,  or other specialists to help work with the youth next time. 

Sometimes the storyteller needs to take a walk or to play with the gear and at times. Our World tries to respect each individual way of creating during the approximately 10 day workshop. At times, the mentor will step back from interfering with the participants having fun with the gear.  Storytellers are encouraged to learn by doing and to persevere when things go wrong. 

One exception to a hands-off approach happens close to the end of the workshop. The audio and video are often recorded separately. Novices operating equipment can sometimes forget to press the record button. In this case, matching (syncing) the audio and video tracks are often left to a mentor or the facilitator. The task can be frustrating and novice editors may not have the patience to complete it. 

Elisa Chee

Elisa Chee, an animator who mentored with Our World, describes some of the highlights of working closely with one participant during a community digital storytelling workshop: 

“Through the process of digital storytelling, she was able to tell her story and we were able to really hear what she was trying to say. I thought that was the most powerful piece of all the digital stories that I’ve been part of making. My favorite work is still working with the seniors. I loved the stories. My favorite stories are the mundane stories, the little stories, human life, like little things that surprisingly mattered to people.”

Elisa Chee

Elisa has realized that, while she’d like to co-create a personal digital story, given time constraints, it is possible to combine animation with stills or video to create powerful visual imagery. 

“There’s this opportunity to use animation in digital stories that doesn’t have to be completely animated. And in fact, a lot of the animation work that I do is for documentary and it’s mainly used as a solution for times when they don’t have archival footage or don’t know how to express something.”

Elisa Chee

In Supernatural Tornado, Perry Erickson worked with Elisa Chee to create “A magical abstraction set to a traditional drumbeat.”

In CRAW KRAW CRAW, Elisa worked with Dean Njootli and Stanley Njootli Jr. In this community digital story, “Father and son practice the Gwich’in language together.”

Sebnem Ozpeta

Sebnem Ozpeta has worked with Our World Language since 2006, when it was a National Film Board project. She describes herself as a filmmaker  who collaborates with local artists as an editor and videographer. Her approach to working with youth is to make a real connection.

“With the youth, on the first day  we introduce ourselves and we try to get to know the students by asking them some questions to understand what they’re really interested in. Like what kind of  films they like and why. It is important to make them talk by creating a safe environment and earn their trust. Young people can be shy or don’t feel comfortable to share their thoughts…

The second phase we ask them to write their idea, like a draft. We try to help them by asking questions who have difficulty putting it on paper. We used to give them a couple of days to think about their story. Then we start hands-on camera training including how to use camera and sound equipment. Beside technical training we talk about the safety and ethical filmmaking. Especially for the interviews, when we go to other places, how we should be respectful to people, especially to Elders while staying on schedule and leaving the place as we found it.

Patience with clear communication and trust are two important keys while working with young people.”

Sebnem Ozpeta

Sebnem recently mentored with Errayou Anagaq. Unikkausikkat – MyStory is about “An Elder who shares her traumatic childhood stories about a revered pastor of her community.”

“I’m not a mentor. I’m their ally. We create this team.”

Sebnem Ozpeta

Indigenous-led Programs

How has your workshop design changed over time?

Chris Bose

Chris describes his art-related travel as a trap line. He has led or mentored workshops across Canada, but some of his favorites took place close to home in Penticton and Vernon, British Columbia. The films he collaborated on during the workshops are available through his YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/paganmannn 

“Living in a small town, I couldn’t make a living as an artist with just art or just photography or just writing. And so, I gradually got into more and more mediums and styles and stuff. And, one thing leads into another. You learn how to make a film. Then people see it and they’re like, ‘Hey, can you teach us how to make a film?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll show you how to make a film.’ So yeah, you have to diversify in a small town like Kamloops because you might just starve and have to get like a real job.”

Chris Bose

There are a small number of Indigenous filmmakers who are willing and able to lead digital storytelling workshops for Indigenous communities. As a result, Chris has travelled as far as Montreal facilitating workshops for youth. Typically, the workshops last 5-7 days, depending on the budget. They start by brainstorming ideas for stories, discussing what youth are willing to share in public, and what they’d like to accomplish. They talk about their favourite filmmakers, why those artists are important, and how they tell a story in film. The youth work through their dreams and ideas and write them all down. They work out whether the story is a documentary or drama. They work on characters, dialogue and create a storyboard. Many of the youth have never used a camera, directed or worked with a crew before. 

“Back in the day, like 10 years ago when I first started doing it, I had a couple of nice handycams or prosumer cameras, eight cameras and mics and lights and, almost like a hockey bag size for those. And I travelled with that. Everything was in there. I had a couple of laptops or my lights and all my gear and I’d go to a place.

But now, you can make a film on a phone. There’s iMovie on a phone, there’s free software that you get, and edit on your phone and it’s getting easier and lighter, the gear’s getting smaller and lighter.

After a while, I didn’t like shooting with lights. I went through a phase saying, ‘And now, we’re just going to use natural light.’ I would teach people to use natural light because a lot of places – you go to Bella Coola, they don’t have any money, they don’t have lights, they don’t have any of that stuff. So you start to tailor what you’re doing to where you’re going.

So let’s figure out what we got and use whatever we can, wherever we are. That really makes a difference, gives them confidence and helps them realize, ‘Oh it is attainable. It is within my grasp.’

Then they don’t get stressed out about money. They don’t get stressed out about location. They don’t get stressed out about stuff. Right. You try to keep it worry free and as real as possible. That really helps. I’ve learned that one over time. Plus, elders or young people, they don’t like a big camera shoved in their face and lights. It’s intimidating for a lot of people. So if you keep it real, you can get it done.”

Chris Bose

Indigenous stories include different languages and cultures, humour and intensity and strength. The stories are multifaceted and are created by youth, young adults and elders. The workshops may be held at high schools, Friendship Centres or Cultural Education Societies. Before travelling to workshops, Chris communicates with the organizers to learn more about their ideas and goals. In larger towns, he works out of Friendship Centres or other Indigenous community organizations rather than schools. 

Often budgets are limited for projects so Chris has learned to work more quickly with groups. At an Indigenous school hosting a filmmaking workshop, new iPads were supplied. The iMovie on some of the students’ phones had more features than the iPad version. During the workshop, the participants downloaded apps to do green screen backgrounds. Students improvised a green screen using large sheets of construction paper from the dollar store. 

Patrick Shannon

Patrick Shannon is an Indigenous multimedia creator who leads workshops for Indie Canadian rural youth. In 2013, after learning filmmaking skills in Vancouver, he returned to his family’s home village in Haida Gwaii. His approach is to be like an older and slightly more experienced cousin. He relates to participants as an equal rather than the “expert.” He approaches the youth as his peers and tries to build rapport. He tries to be more personal in his workshops, using fewer slideshows and predetermined structure, making it more about the needs of the participants. 

“Usually when an Indigenous community needs a story told, they have to hire someone from the city or someone from out of town. And then it’s usually a non-Indigenous person telling Indigenous stories but also through their lens. And so you saw that there was kind of a misrepresentation a lot of times and disconnect between the community and the filmmaker.

And so a big part of what drove me in my later years has been trying to build capacity and equip Indigenous communities, in particular youth, in how to do this work ourselves. So we’re telling our stories from our perspectives and we’re not having it being compromised by other voices that tend to have traditionally dominated the media scene.”

Patrick Shannon, InnoNative

Patrick teaches intensive workshops that vary from community to community. Some workshops are designed to create a really fun experience for youth. Sometimes, youth learn to record community events or shoot a documentary. Often, Patrick will travel to the Indigenous community and partner with other mentors who work locally or with the sponsoring organization. He has partnered in the past with Our World Language, who brought other storytellers and audio engineers to work with Patrick during community storytelling workshops on Haida Gwaii.

As a university instructor for web, branding and marketing, Patrick notes how the film viewing experience has changed over his lifetime:

“It’s interesting to  think of the generational transition when it comes to filmmaking and how when I was growing up, filmmaking and movies were only on television screens and then all of a sudden people started watching movies on laptops, and used to getting more familiar with smaller devices and then tablets and people now watch Netflix on their phone while on the bus.

Not only that, but the cameras are so powerful. And obviously you’ve got this footage and people are starting to edit and you see the younger generation just more and more comfortable and fluent with being able to navigate a small device quite efficiently. And we’re used to vertical video now with  Instagram or Facebook. The majority of website traffic is now from mobile devices. And with that, mobile video has just exploded.”

Patrick Shannon

How do facilitators and mentors interact in the program design?

Chris Bose

“Be positive, encouraging and support them because participants need that. They need someone to believe in them and to help them. If you have confidence, you bring your confidence to them and it really shows. There’s been a couple of times where I’ll get tired and unraveled. You’ve been up for days and we’re trying to shoot like 10 movies and if you waver, they smell the fear. You just got to soldier on through. Be brave. After a while, you do something enough times, you just figure out a way.”

In some programs, Chris has worked with a mentor or assistant; about half the time, he is the only facilitator and moves between groups to help keep everyone on track and focused. Storytellers work in groups of 3 or 4; groups of 5 are too large. They learn how to use a camera, how to do an interview, how to act, how to write a script, how to storyboard, how to light a scene, and how to edit. They learn by doing the project and playing these roles. 

As a facilitator, Chris gets a lot out of hosting the workshop:

“I guess I get a sense of satisfaction and giving back to the community, giving back to the people and empowering them and helping and being a part of the community and I continue to learn myself. I learn about storytelling and different ways of storytelling, different ways of knowing. And helping people find the confidence within themselves to share their stories and help them realize that this has value. This is amazing. You need to tell this story. Like don’t be shy, just helping them find that confidence is really cool. I think that’s really rewarding. I love that they have that breakthrough moment and you see it and you’re like, yeah, I love it, love to see it happen.”


Patrick Shannon

 “If it’s a short one to three day storytelling workshop, we’ll start by doing a quick introduction to storytelling in general. What is storytelling? What are the different mediums that we use? What are the basics of telling a contemporary story? So people can start understanding and start gaining media literacy, understanding how stories are made. This is usually within the first few hours we’ll show some films and  start getting people to start thinking critically about how stories are told.

And then once we  understand how they’re told, we start deconstructing it and going into the specific elements of storytelling from narration in documentary or whether it goes to script and narrative. What is the role of your subjects, your actors, how does sound play an important part of this? And essentially throughout all the steps of it, after the introduction, we’ll often try and get on training with some of the equipment.”

As an experienced filmmaker, Patrick shares his ideas about how film can be used as an emotional and visual language.

“So we might start talking about how  framing affects the emotional state when you watch something and start showing the different types of shots that you have. This is a medium shot. This is a closeup. This is a bird’s eye view. This is a Dutch angle. What does this do emotionally to the viewer?

And then let’s get our hands on some cameras, pull out your phone and let’s practice these and start just getting our hands on and having tangible exercises that can really start connecting our muscle memory and our process with actually creating something because you can only get so theoretical and still have people retain it because especially creative thinkers, we often just want to get our hands dirty and learn through that way. So it’s not overloading people with information, but giving them the idea, the general concept and letting them play with it and learn as they go.”

Patrick will often teach filmmaking workshops using only cell phones for production. If you have a powerful story, you can use a phone to shoot it, or sections of it. Recent commercial examples include Searching for Sugarman, Unsane and Tangerine. Youth have a powerful production tool in their hands already. Patrick points out that many communities, including Indigenous ones, are forced to be resourceful because they don’t have a lot of resources.

Carsen Gray – Sah ‘Laana (Official Music Video).
Produced By: Vago
Music Video Directed By: Patrick Shannon

“What I love especially is my experience working in Indigenous communities. It doesn’t matter if it’s iron tools or it’s a chainsaw or whatever. Whatever new technology comes out, Indigenous communities find a way to make some amazing stuff with it. And so much of our modern culture is  based on things we’ve just taken advantage of. If you look at jingle dress dancing, that’s an amazing dance that you see out in the Prairies, especially that comes from  the 1950s and  all those beautiful cones that make the beautiful sound. Those are originally  the tin lids of tobacco cans that were just like twisted up into cones and it’s just like whatever we have to do, we do it like fried bread bannock that came from being starved out and the only rations we have are flour and water.

So Indigenous folk are very clever. But so is everyone else around the world. And when you tend to have, some people call these creative constraints. So I see that same thing with cell phones. I don’t have a big fancy cinema rig, but I do have a phone. I don’t have a big powerful computer, but I do have iMovie on my phone and you can produce some amazing things if you’re driven for it. And I think the biggest thing is you need that little bit of inspiration to show that you can accomplish something and you don’t need much to do it.”

Patrick tries to be a resource and role model for other Indigenous folk. He began working with youth on Haida Gwaii and then started teaching in communities across the country. When you don’t see anyone who looks like you or who is from the same background, it is hard to imagine yourself being a filmmaker. Indigenous stories told by Indigenous filmmakers are finding funding and an audience in a way that has not happened before. It is a massive Renaissance for Indigenous filmmakers today. As more Indigenous youth learn to be filmmakers, they can tell stories that reflect their own communities. They can tell stories that otherwise would not be told.


Access to Media Education Society (AMES)

How has the workshop design changed over time?

AMES immersive live/work media-making workshops typically involve 12-24 participants (most often young folx from multi-barriered communities living in the Lower Mainland) gathering on Galiano Island (a 40 minute ferry ride from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal) for 5 to 9 days.

AMES grew out of the Gulf Islands Film and Television School (GIFTS)–a private  fee-for-service film school (owned by George Harris) geared toward teens that began in 1995. In the beginning, AMES’ primary goal was to secure funding to make the GIFTS model (5 day immersive, and mentor-guided media-making programs) accessible to youth from marginalized communities.

In AMES first year of operations (1997), we ran a series of media intensives for youth from 5 different community cohorts (Indigenous, street involved, POC—People of Colour, queer, and HIV +). Over the course of those back-to-back intensives, a total of 18 incredible mentors, guided 84 youth in the creation of 28 films. Among the accomplished community-based mentors we had the honour of working with in those early years were: Marcus Youssef, T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss, Barb Cranmer, Renae Morrisseau, Mary Alice, Kenna Fair, Heather Frise, Velcrow Ripper, Pia Massie, Bo Myers, Kira Wu, Aerlyn Weissman, Jill Bend, Winston Xin, Krista Tupper, Warren Arcan, Terrance Anthony, Kagan Goh, Jason DaSilva, Vern Beavis, and Brice Canyon. 

“The values, ethic and heart that underpins this organization is deep. I believe I learned, and was part of creating a culture of trust and authentic respect where people could tell meaningful, personal, and authentic stories.”

Marcus Youssef

In that first year, it became clear that the process undertaken during these programs had a healing and empowering impact on the video makers themselves. The videos the storytellers made held the power to educate, inspire empathy, and even activate the people who watched them. 

This recognition prompted gradual shifts in the goals and approaches we took. To begin with, we moved to a longer program format to enable more robust community building and healing, and to allow time to develop the social, emotional and intellectual tools to critically reflect on the systems behind our stories of struggle and resilience. Having more front-end time to dedicate to the ‘unpacking’ process; to collectively reflect upon the ‘scripts’ we’d internalized, and consider the various impacts they might have had—on our self-perception, the perception of others, interpersonal dynamics, and systemic barriers—tended to yield more thoughtful and intentional storytelling practices.

This dovetailed with efforts to continue the core work of nurturing stories and nourishing storytellers while expanding the ‘ripple effect’ of change that the ‘moving stories’ could inspire. In this spirit, in 2000 we started to incorporate the youth-created videos into educational resource packages, and peer-led workshops that inspired deeper learning and dialogue about the issues the videos addressed. Because we were committed to paying the folx who made the videos to lead the workshops (held in schools and other public settings) we began to develop programming in the areas of arts-based facilitation training and curriculum design.

AMES is effective in creating spaces where voices that are unheard can be heard, and then finding ways to echo those voices throughout society.

Rup Sidhu, Artist and Facilitator

This leadership and facilitation development work, and the raising of funds to support it–takes time and considerable resources. Because of this, we now tend to do two years of outreach for every year’s worth of new video production.

AMES community feedback

The meta-arc of AMES programs (from the MAKING of the videos to the SHARING of them) reflects one of AMES driving goals: to support marginalized youth in making ‘moving stories’ that generate ripple effects of change.

The creation of supportive spaces that nurture individual creative expression and small group collaboration are at the centre of the concentric waves of impact. The work that emerges through these creatively, emotionally, and intellectually potent spaces is then shared in through peer-facilitated workshops in classroom and school settings. Ideally, the generative dialogue continues to expand to the wider community through online dissemination and screenings in other public settings.

The feedback we’ve gotten from participants over the years about the impacts that our programs have had on them has tended to focus on the benefit of: 

  •  Getting a chance to be and feel heard/validated/understood.
  •  Having an opportunity to gain ‘hard-skills’ in video production while developing  better personal and group communication skills.
  • Being in a place/space where they felt safe / supported /at home/ “like they belonged”–a rare feeling for many of the participants.
  • Increasing their pride (in themselves, their culture and what they’ve accomplished) and confidence (belief in their ability to complete projects and have their visions come to life on screen).
  • Finding a creative outlet.
  • Being inspired, creatively fulfilled and motivated.
  • Increasing their understanding of anti-oppression principles and the issues that the projects focused on.
  • Seeing people from their own communities living full, accomplished and self-directed lives as artists and filmmakers.
  • Communicating their visions and perspectives to the wider public.
  • Meeting other ‘like-minded’ youth (ie. creatively motivated individuals who want to make change in the world).

Benefits to Mentors: Over 23 years of doing this work we’ve come to realize that a creative ‘hot-house’ is formed when seasoned media artists do intensive media-arts training with young people with fresh eyes and ideas. In addition to broadening the base of young people who are engaged in the media arts and inspired by its potential, this approach rejuvenates the artistic practices of established artists who are being hired to work during AMES programs. 

Time and again we’ve heard mentors marvel at the creative ‘contact high’ they get from helping to facilitate seminal moments of creative fulfillment in people whose voices and visions have long been suppressed, or comment on how mentoring during programs like these “recharges their creative batteries” and  “re-focuses their sense of creative purpose”.

How do facilitators and mentors interact in the program design?

AMES mentors are reflective of the specific communities that are being engaged (ie. If a program is for Indigenous youth, the mentors are Indigenous, if it’s for LGBTQ2S youth, the mentors identify as queer, etc). Mentors are also chosen on the basis of their personality (are they easy-going, and patient? Do they have a good sense of humour, or like working with youth?), and pedagogical philosophy (Do they know when to step in and when to step back? Can they express their creative enthusiasm in support of the participant’s vision without taking over), and their overall commitment to the values of Community Digital Storytelling, and commitment to socially and personally transformative processes.

AMES programs generally involve participants working in groups of three to create a video (group divisions tend to be based on thematic, genre and/or personality compatibility). Each group of 3 has a dedicated mentor whose job is to support (emotionally and technically) the group in establishing, refining, and realizing their collective vision of the story they want to tell. Sometimes this means playing the role of coach, task master, devil’s advocate, confidante, mediator, and everything in between. [see: Post #5 for more about the many roles mentors play]. The collaborative creative process can give rise to challenges about how to equitably ‘share space’ within the digital story, but creative negotiations (supported by the mentor) can also result in creative solutions that might not have been otherwise considered.

As challenging as group work can be, it helps develop essential skills in the art of ‘give and take’, and people usually walk away with an appreciation that what they created together was ultimately more powerful than what they might have accomplished alone. The multiple viewpoints that collaborative story creation can accommodate can also lead to multiple points of entry for those watching the completed work.

We Stand On Guard From Thee. Created during an AMES workshop.

The ups and downs of creative collaboration can also forge deep bonds. Many of the people who met and worked together during AMES programs continue to collaborate on creative and community mobilizing initiatives to this day. Above and beyond the body of work, the relationships forged during the programs is perhaps AMES’ most enduring legacy. 

Digital Stories Canada Workshops

How has the workshop design changed over time?

Lorna Boschman, facilitator for Digital Stories Canada, began working in community-based media projects in early collaborations with sculptor Persimmon Blackbridge. Persimmon and Elizabeth Shefrin worked with the British Columbia Self-Advocacy Foundation to create From the Inside/OUT!, an oral history project, a visual art show first presented at the Roundhouse Community Centre, and a Yorkton Short Film & Video Award-winning documentary (2000). The project supported adults living with developmental disabilities as they shared stories of their childhood years spent in large institutions. 

Cancer’s Margins was a qualitative research study (2012-2016) that looked at the experiential knowledge of LGBT2Q+ people who had been diagnosed with breast or gynecological cancer. In addition to open-ended interviews, Lorna co-developed digital storytelling workshops as a way for peers to share health knowledge with others. Storytellers were asked to make a digital story about something they wished they had known about cancer treatment and care before going into it. During the workshops, trans mentors worked with trans storytellers, and queer mentors worked with queer storytellers. The workshop structure grew out of one developed by Carla Rice who has led many health-related digital storytelling workshops. The structure was based on the StoryCenter workshop model. 

Working with the Cancer’s Margins project, it became clear that teaching people to shoot and edit were quite different activities than telling their story. Storytelling is emotionally intense, in this case, remembering incidents from cancer treatment and care. It was clear that, during the weekend workshop, the storyteller was the only one who could write and direct their piece, while the mentor could work with them to develop, structure and edit the piece. 

The longer workshop models that include training were developed primarily for youth who want to tell their stories while learning technical and aesthetic aspects of filmmaking. In 2017, Lorna Boschman developed a new model for short community workshops to invite local content for the grunt gallery’s Mount Pleasant Community Art Screen. The Screen shows non-commercial work by artists and community members on an LED screen without sound. Sebnem Ozpeta co-facilitates and co-mentors the workshop with Lorna and is the technician for the Community Art Screen. 

“From my experience, there is a huge difference between urban and rural settings. The ones that we’re in [with Our World Language] are smaller places. These offer a very good opportunity, different from the routine of school. When in the big city, it’s easy to be distracted. That’s why I say teatime [at the grunt gallery]. ‘Nothing to do this Sunday? Let’s go to this workshop.’ Some people come there to connect, or they are just curious to see what’s happening there.”

Sebnem Ozpeta

Burnt Orange. Created during grunt gallery workshop. Storyteller: Keamogetse “Kea” Mosienyane. Videography: Josh Kamijan and Kea Mosienyane. Editor: Sebnem Ozpeta
Mentors: Sebnem Ozpeta and Lorna Boschman

The structure of the afternoon grunt gallery workshops does not include technical instruction because of time limitations. If a storyteller is there to tell a story, then that is their priority. It takes time and mental energy to shift from reflection to production and back. The mentors’ background in documentary filmmaking prepares them to perform quickly in the workshop, as interviewing and communications skills are used for rapid story development.

Cost is one of the differences between the afternoon workshops at the grunt and the longer workshops for youth: it is less expensive to run an afternoon workshop than one that runs for a week or two. The trade-off in cost has implications in building community capacity. In an urban centre, people’s time is consumed with work and leisure activities, with less time remaining for reflection and creation (at least before social isolation was practiced). In a smaller community, the digital workshop screening provides local entertainment with familiar faces, and community engagement may be higher. The longer workshops tend to build a stronger sense of community among participants.

How do facilitators and mentors interact in the program design?

The grunt gallery workshops are described as “teatime,” a space for creative expression. Community members can tell their story and know someone is listening. The mentors help you to transform a verbal story into a digital one. Listening to each other and feeling a connection to another human is a basic human need. Building trust through listening is a powerful way to remind us that we are all valued, yet sometimes people need to be reminded of that. The strength of the story is based on input from the storyteller. As the workshops are shorter, much of the story development is left to the storyteller prior to the workshop. 

Preparation prior to the workshop is built into the four hour structure at the grunt gallery. Storytellers are given a five-day email countdown leading up to the workshop so they will come prepared with ideas for a story and higher resolution visuals to support their story. The workshop structure supports rapid creation of the digital story with less time for reflection than in longer workshops. Participants are asked to bring 10 photographs or video clips to the workshop. The facilitator/mentors serve as editors and sound recordists, in case the story requires narration.  Storytellers are encouraged to ask questions in advance of the workshop.

No Vacancy. Created during grunt gallery workshops.
Digital Storyteller and Videography: Michele Searle.
Editor: Lorna Boschman
Mentors: Lorna Boschman and Sebnem Ozpeta.
At first no one believed that raccoons, skunks and rats would share space under her house. So she set up her camera…

Attendance at the afternoon workshop is limited to four storytellers and two facilitator/mentors. Production and technical training are not part of the workshop – they happen outside it. Personal attention from the mentors supports story progress to a first draft using the photos or video clips storytelling provided on a memory stick. 

To begin the grunt gallery workshop, the group shares a round of introductions, followed by a round of story ideas. Those determine our plan of action for the afternoon. Technical tasks are divided between the mentors. One mentor assists recording the voice-over; then each mentor uses a laptop computer to edit a first draft of the digital story.

The roughly edited stories are shown at the end of the workshop and, based on feedback, our team works toward a final edit in the first week after the workshop. The rough edit is uploaded to Vimeo; the password is shared with the storyteller, who makes suggestions until the story is completed to their satisfaction. The storyteller always has the choice of keeping their story private.

In the grunt workshops, the focus is on telling the story and encouraging openness, self-expression, and vulnerability. For those who have fewer technical stills, a mentor helps to organize a series of steps to create a first rough edit of the story: Orally share the story, refine story or voice-over script, record voice-over, import picture, video, and audio files, and edit with the storyteller. 

Since the facilitators want to make the afternoon workshop work for everyone regardless of their skills, the mentors give key support technically. The tools to transfer the footage are there. A number of people attending the workshops have the technical skills to create their own story. They attend because they appreciate the structure of the workshop, group feedback, and working toward a specific deadline. The social need to connect with and work around other creative people is part of the appeal. 


Black Dot Roots and Culture Collective Dub Poetry Workshops / Scruffmouth Spoken Wordshops

From 2008 to 2015, the Black Dot Roots and Culture Collective (BDRCC) produced an annual Pan African Slam and from 2009-2012, Hogan’s Alley Poetry Festival. They also held slam poetry workshops – and so, became part of our community digital storytelling research. Were the experiences of a dub poetry workshop facilitator different from those who lead CDS workshops? And how have they evolved over time?

In 2013, Kevan Anthony Cameron and Black Dot Roots and Culture Collective launched THE GREAT BLACK NORTH: Contemporary African Canadian Poetry at the University of Toronto.

BDRCC began offering dub poetry workshops in 2006, in collaboration with the Masabo Culture Company in New Westminster, BC. The workshop began with background and the history of dub poetry. Connecting dub poetry to hip hop and spoken word performance helps to make the workshops more interesting for youth. Kevan “Scruffmouth” Cameron, founder and director of Black Dot Roots and Culture Collective, is a dub poet that recites his work as performance, presentation, as well as literature.

By 2011, BDRCC, with gracious support from Canada Council for the Arts, produced Hogan’s Alley Poetry Festival; a celebration of Vancouver’s historic East End/Strathcona neighbourhood through spoken word
poetry, literary performance, storytelling, music, and civic engagement.

Hogan’s Alley Poetry Festival 2011

The initial dub poetry workshops were created for youth of African descent, and led to spoken word composition, recitation, and performance workshops in the school system, universities, literary festivals, and community events. In most of the workshops, the objective is to write a poem; in some cases, the youth performed the poem they wrote during the workshop. A Scruffmouth Spoken Wordshop usually begins with a group consensus about the objectives and outcomes of the session will be. Whether the space is curated for a cultural festival event or facilitated for a workshop, Kevan Anthony Cameron utilized the principles and language of community digital storytelling in his work.

ELEMENTALITY was composed as poetic diplomacy for the Second
International Roundtable Supporting Ancient Indigenous Knowledge in
Washington, D.C., 2010. Special thanks to Angela Marie MacDougall and
The Turtle Lodge for commissioning the recitation of ELEMENTALITY at
the Second International Roundtable Supporting Ancient Indigenous
Knowledge as a part of a diverse delegation representing the four
directions.

Comparably to Community Digital Storytelling, youth come to the workshop intending to develop ideas for a poem or short video project. Both workshop forms help participants to develop their idea through group feedback, and support the development of a completed project during a relatively short workshop experience. Both types of workshop support an informal learning style and encourage participants to tell stories based on their own experiences.


In all of the workshop models, the emphasis is on what the storyteller wants to include in their story. It is up to storytellers in the workshops to tell their stories and without their full participation, the story will not be told. In the final post in our series, we look at how we shared our community digital stories in the past, and how we plan to share in the future.


We gratefully acknowledge that we live and work on the unceded, traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) nations.

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

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